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The Ethical Gamer #1: Lying in Games

The Ethical Gamer series explores boardgaming through an ethical and scriptural lens, by Josh Jones.


One of the joys of board gaming is that you can enter into a world wholly different than your own. In my daily life, I’ve never gone on an adventure where I explore deep cave systems and fight against swamp-creatures. But when I play Above and Below, it activates that imaginative side of my brain. Part of the enjoyment comes from imagining a life I don’t have.

As a teenager, I loved to play games like Poker and Mafia, where I was able to use deception in order to win the game. In my day-to-day, I tried to be honest, and it felt foreign and exciting to lie during a game.Was this wrong? Was it pointing to something corrupt in my heart that was being kindled? An ember I shouldn’t blow on?

Or was it more like the sword fights against swamp-creatures? A harmless chance to use imagination, wit, and strategy to flex my mind’s abilities?

I tend to think it’s the second option. Board games give us a contained playground that lets us challenge ourselves within the boundaries established by a set of rules. I would never, in a million years, want to wake up in the harsh live-or-die environment of Agricola. But it’s fun to see if I can overcome and save my family from impending starvation when there are no actual stakes. And this is the key: no stakes. When everyone understands that lying is part of the gameplay, there are no actual stakes. Nobody is harmed; trust is not broken. If we draw a clear distinction between the make-believe of a game and the real-world consequences of lying, I believe we can ethically enjoy games that involve deception. We all go into the game understanding that for this block of time and context, lying is nothing more than strategy and fun.

Here’s a similar example…

Whenever you use your imagination, you are flexing the part of your brain that creates non-truth. When we tell our children a larger-than-life story about how once upon a time, a knight fought off a dragon to save a princess, we are technically making up lies. But the lies are told in a safe context which is understood by all to be imaginative fun. In this context, you are expressing non-truths as if they’re truth, but few would argue that story-telling is immoral. The context is understood to be playful and creative.

When deception is written into the rules of the game and understood by all parties, I believe it’s morally acceptable to play along. But in some games, it’s less cut-and-dry. Catan doesn’t have anything in the rules that encourages deceit, but it might not be in your best interest to reveal which resources you have available to trade. Is it wrong to say, “I don’t have any sheep,” while holding a hand full of them?

It may be! To me, it’s very important to establish context for the group you’re playing with. I’ve found it easy to say, “No, I don’t have any… but I might not tell you if I did.” This establishes a clear message that moving forward, you shouldn’t be surprised if I’m keeping things hidden. In this way, no one gets caught off guard, feels hurt, or considers it cheating.

The danger, if you don’t establish some ground rules, is that your friend (or child) might feel hurt or betrayed if they discover you were lying to win the game. It can erode trust or feel like you’re prioritizing winning above your relationship with them. If you don’t care about that or think, “They’ll get over it…”, then you’ve crossed a line morally.

Proverbs 26:19 says,

Like a maniac shooting
flaming arrows of death
is one who deceives their neighbor
and says, “I was only joking!”

Vivid picture, huh?

This verse speaks of a scenario where someone tells a lie, and when they’re caught, they make the excuse that it was all in jest. The verse is basically saying, “It’s not a joke if the other person thought you were serious and was hurt by it.”

I think the same can be applied to our situation. As an overarching rule, it’s not okay if the other person was hurt by what you did.

A Message To Families

Please be extra cautious when playing these types of games with your young kids. Children are just getting a grasp on the world, and they are easily shaped by what they do and what they enjoy. They do not have a firmly established moral code yet. And if they feel like they’re good at lying, it is very natural for them to want to flex this newfound skill elsewhere. Please be aware that moral lines are more firmly established in your brain than in theirs. For this reason, it might be wise to hold off on games involving deception until they’re a bit older.


What do you think?

Do you avoid games that involve deceit?

If not, what are your favorite social-deduction games?

Let us know in the comments!

It’s by constant use of God’s Word that we train ourselves to distinguish good from evil. So keep seeking that solid food! (Hebrews 5:14)

– Josh

Josh Jones is Lead Playtester, a contributing writer for the blog/newsletter, and the planting pastor of Three Trees (a small church in Hartford City, Indiana). He loves strategy games and the relational, community-building aspect of board gaming. In his free time, Josh is currently developing a game based on the Biblical year of jubilee.

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